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Battling COVID is just the start for many patients: Their hospital bills can be staggering

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Jeff Sherman spent 11 days in the hospital fighting COVID-19.

"I was on oxygen the entire time, they of course charged for that," the Huntington Beach, California  resident told CBS Los Angeles. "I was on high flow oxygen two-thirds of that time, and they charge an extra rate for that, so the total bill was $110,000."

The six-page long itemized bill ranges from $3,400 a day for his ICU bed to nearly $4,500 for a dose of Remdesivir.

And then there are the charges that surprised him the most, like $22 a day for a single melatonin to help him sleep.

Sherman has insurance but like many Americans, he has a high deductible. He believes almost all of it will be covered by worker's compensation, because he contracted the virus on the job. But Karen Pollitz, of the Kaiser Family Foundation, says many Californians aren't so lucky.

"Resources are limited, let's just start with that," she said.

The federal CARES Act did establish a provider relief fund worth more than $150 billion. But it's only for people who are uninsured.

And while some private insurers have opted to waive deductibles and co-pays for treatment associated with COVID, there's no state or federal law requiring them to. That means it's up to consumers to advocate for themselves.

"You can ask, first of all, your insurance company, 'Are you sure that's all you can pay for this?'" Pollitz said. "You can go back and ask the doctor or the hospital if they will forgive some of the bill or can you pay it in installments."

Californians do have protections, though, when it comes to balance billing.

"If you go to an in-network provider for your care, and you get a bill from an out-of-network provider that you didn't consent to or did not know about, you should not see that bill. That is banned in California," says Rachel Lynn Gish of Health Access California.

COVID survivor Gregg Garfield spent 64 days in the hospital at the very beginning of the pandemic.

"I had everything from kidney failure, I was put on dialysis. I had collapsed lungs," he said.

He says he has paid very little of his more than $2.5 million COVID bill. He says as long as his care was properly coded as a COVID-related treatment, his insurer Blue Cross would cover it fully.

"We had to fight, and we had to go back and forth on what was allowed," said Garfield. "If you didn't catch it, you're stuck with huge bills."

Garfield – who lost most of his fingers – still gets bills from his hospital stay almost a year later. He thinks many survivors are paying bills they don't need to.

Garfield has three more surgeries in his future and will be getting top-of-the-line prosthetic hands, which won't be covered by insurance.

CBS Los Angeles reached out to major insurers in California to ask them what programs they offer to help people with COVID bills. Some are waiving all deductibles and co-pays.

Janine Klaisle is insured, but her health plan has a high deductible. Her 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, was rushed to the ER in January with possible multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C.

Fours hours and just a blood draw and urine sample later, Klaisle said "the bill itself was about $4,000 and our portion is almost $2,600."

Olivia and her mom never even made it into a hospital room.

"We were in the waiting room the entire time. They did the blood test right there, they did a urine sample right in the bathroom," she said.

All Janine can do is ask the hospital and her insurer to lower her share.

And they may do just that.

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